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A guide to Photographing the Amish

Practice caution and respect

Published: April 1, 2015 12:00 AM
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Previously submitted to Amish Heartland by Amish Photographer wade Wilcox

First things first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Isn’t taking photographs of the Amish against their religion?”
Answer “NO, it’s not against an Amish person’s religion to be photographed. The Amish religion does, however, prohibit POSING for photographs.
If you ask an Amish person for permission to take their picture, they will politely say no, as this could be construed as a willingness to “pose.” Most of my Amish friends say they could care less if people take their picture ... provided the photographers are respectful. Many have recounted stories of tourists driving up their driveway and boldly walking onto their front lawn to take a photograph. One woman recalled a time when a tourist stopped her buggy and held the reigns of the horse until his wife could get a photo! Horror stories like these aren’t the norm, but keep in mind a few disrespectful photographers can generate a great deal of bad feeling within the Amish community.
Traveling through Amish Country can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience “ especially when you bring back great photographs to share with family and friends. This article is designed to help you take better photos in Amish country while still respecting the culture and traditions of the Amish.
Three steps to better Amish photography
A few improvements in your photographic process can make the difference between a “nice” photo and a “Wow!” photo. The following three steps should help improve your photography by allowing you to plan ahead for a great day of shooting.
Step One “ Find an interesting subject. Horses, barns, buggies, kids and landscapes are all great subjects for photos. The trick is knowing where (and when) to look.
Unlike the bustling, business-lined streets of towns such as Kidron, Berlin and Sugarcreek, the back roads of Amish Country offer far greater photographic opportunities. Farms dot the countryside here, and life moves at a slower pace “ even the traffic, which gives a photographer the opportunity to pull over and take a shot or two. People here are less accustomed to photographers, so don’t stop for more than a few shots. While these roads are less traveled and more peaceful, they’re not as well engineered as their big-city counterparts. Expect packed dirt and gravel rather than smooth asphalt, and plenty of airborne dust “ especially if it hasn’t rained in a while. These roads can sometimes narrow very quickly, and trips in an RV are not advisable. Good maps are essential for travel in these areas (luckily, most stores carry them). The one I use opens out to about three feet wide by two feet high, but it’s invaluable for navigating the back roads. It’s the best way to get out into the middle of nowhere, take great pictures and still find your way home.
Amish country has something interesting for the photographer every day. Local livestock and produce auctions such as the ones in Kidron, Farmerstown and Mt. Hope occur throughout the week. On weekdays, Amish children will be out playing at recess from September through the first part of April, and though Sundays are not considered the best days to photograph the Amish, you might be able to get a nice photo of a large group of buggies parked next to a barn when they meet for church at someone’s home. Finding a good subject, however, is really only the first step toward creating a great photograph.

Special Shots for Every Season
Plowing & planting.
Maple syrup buckets
Kids playing softball at school
Hay cutting & gathering
Wheat stacking and threshing
Kids helping out with chores
Colorful leaves
Field work/harvesting
Building corn shock stacks
Snow covered buggies, etc.
Kids sled-riding at school

Step Two “Now that you’ve found something worthwhile to photograph, try to place it in front of an interesting background. Sometimes photographers become so engrossed in their subject that they fail to notice a particularly distracting background” often one that could be significantly improved by moving a few yards in one direction or another.
Another great way to get a good background is to “stalk” a spot. As sinister as it may sound, “stalking” merely consists of finding a great background (a brightly painted barn, a hazy sunset or a road winding through beautiful fall foliage), setting up your gear and waiting for a buggy or similar subject to happen by. The downside: you can spend quite a bit of time waiting for your subject, with no guarantees as to whether it will appear!; the upside: the chance that when your subject does make its appearance, you’re likely to get an absolutely spectacular, perfectly composed photo.
You might also consider shooting a few photos with the camera turned vertically rather than horizontally “especially when photographing people, windmills, or other subjects which have tall, thin proportions. Don’t forget to take some experimental photographs. Take a few shots where the lighting isn’t right or the composition seems crowded or strange (part of an old fence post or the hub of a buggy wheel). Keep an eye out for still life shots, too (milk cans, farm equipment, etc.). Sometimes the best shots don’t include people! Even if you don’t think a shot is particularly “photo-worthy,” shoot it anyway. Occasionally, you’ll surprise yourself when one of these shots turns out to be your best.
Step Three “ Work to improve the technical merit of your pictures. This can be as simple as choosing the right time of day for your photographic expedition. Early morning and early evening are two of the best times to get good pictures. There is a great deal of activity in the Amish communities during these times, and the lower angle of the sun will greatly enhance your photos by reducing harsh shadows and adding a warm glow to your subjects. Generally speaking, you should always try to shoot with the sun behind you rather than in front of you. On sunny summer days, pictures taken outdoors from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. will tend to be characterized by bright highlights combined with dark shadows and will tend to give your pictures a harsh quality. In fact, many digital cameras will not be able to expose all elements of the image properly. Overcast days, while not as outwardly appealing, often present better lighting conditions, as sunlight is diffused by the clouds and therefore casts little, if any, shadow. Pictures on such days tend to exhibit a beautiful softly, muted quality. Try to compose these photos so they include little or no sky, which will generally appear as an unattractive, washed out gray or white. An area with strongly rolling hills is likely to provide a nice backdrop since you have a better chance of finding a hillside or grove of trees behind your subject.
Another simple way to improve your photographs is to buy an inexpensive tripod which, when used properly, will ensure a higher percentage of crisp, clear images. Tripods also make it easier for photographers with digital cameras to stitch together photos to create sweeping panoramas (Amish Country contains many such scenes.
A note about safety
As you drive along the back roads of Amish country, you’re likely to come across many wonderful photo opportunities. Please resist the urge to immediately slam on the brakes to take a picture. Check your rearview mirror to see if anyone is behind you. If not, slow down and look for the widest place to pull over. Don’t stop to park after just passing over a hill “ people coming up from behind may not be able to see you until the last minute. Turn on your hazard lights, then compose and take your photo (all the while keeping an eye out for traffic). Along these same lines, don’t become so focused on the local scenery that you forget to pay attention to the road ahead. This is especially true in hilly areas where slow-moving obstacles such as buggies, pony carts, farm animals and/or pedestrians could be in your lane, just over the next hill.
All of this may sound like a complicated, cumbersome process, but with a little practice, it will become second nature and will make the roads much safer for everyone.
And now about equipment. Obviously, you can use any type of camera to take photographs in Amish Country, but certain cameras can offer advantages over others. Cameras equipped with larger zoom lenses will allow you to take pictures from farther away, increasing your chances of getting just the right shot without drawing attention to yourself or invading anyone’s personal space. Zoom lenses have the added advantage of allowing you to crop out unwanted elements such as a parked car or trash can.
If you’d like to expend a bit more time and effort, consider consulting your camera’s instruction manual to learn how to control its shutter speed and aperture setting. If your camera doesn’t allow you to access these controls, you may want to consider buying a higher end digital camera or even (if you can afford it) a digital 35mm SLR. Better equipment gives photographers greater versatility in shot selection and composition. These cameras are particularly useful in difficult shooting situations where a photographer wants to shoot several frames per second or where there is little available light. While fancy equipment does offer certain advantages, small, unobtrusive cameras allow any photo enthusiast to capture candid scenes quickly and easily. Such moments often disappear before a “professional” can attach the proper lens and take the shot.
Privacy & Respect
Try to stay at least 30 feet away from anyone you’re photographing. Don’t go onto private property (including driveways). Don’t be a pest “take a few shots and move along. Even the friendliest folks will begin to get annoyed by a photographer who parks across from their home and shoots pictures for five minutes. This is especially true when taking pictures at an Amish school (especially after the Nickel Mines Shooting in Pennsylvania). A car that drives slowly past a school five or six times could generate a great deal of stress and a call to the county sheriff.
Try to take photos of adults from the back or side “ avoid close-ups. If an Amish person covers their face as you’re about to take a picture, don’t take the picture. A few of the Amish orders (especially the more conservative ones) are more sensitive about having their pictures taken than others, and a picture of someone covering their face isn’t all that appealing anyway!
Taking great photographs in Amish country requires patience, preparation, effort, and a little bit of luck. Plan your photographic expeditions in advance, learn the limits of your camera, treat the Amish with respect, and you’ll be able to capture wonderful images of this unique culture.

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